STERN: Misdirected studies

A Stern Perspective

Pretty much every semester, a column appears in these pages criticizing Directed Studies. And with good reason. While D.S. is a valuable and even foundational part of many Yalies’ freshmen experiences, it is quite flawed.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianThe D.S. column usually appears at the beginning of each semester, sometimes written by a D.S. student, sometimes not. These columns are fairly predictable, and they always generate controversy. Their authors note that the writers of works read in D.S. are almost entirely white and male. Sometimes the columns generate responses, usually explaining in a weary tone that D.S. can only teach so many things, and it is, after all, a program of the Western canon.

Last week, a different and inventive take on the D.S. column appeared in another campus publication, The Politic. There, Azeezat Adeleke ’17 performed a demographic analysis of D.S. According to a survey, D.S. students are overwhelmingly and disproportionately white. They are also disproportionately the products of private high schools. Perhaps more shockingly, according to the article, all 20 D.S. professors are white. Seen through this light, D.S. looks awfully like a sepia-toned photo circa 1946 of white, male, privileged Yalies discussing the white, male, privileged thinkers of yesteryear.

Previous writings that have examined D.S. present valid critiques — but the problem is that they think too small. We can’t just edit the syllabus to include a couple more books by women or minority authors; we need to fundamentally restructure the program to make it more representative of the full range of Western voices, or create D.S.-like programs that have non-Western focuses.

The D.S. website calls the program “an interdisciplinary study of Western civilization.” Early Western civilization is traditionally defined as the Western Roman Empire and classical Greece. With that in mind, the fact that the first semester’s authors are almost entirely white and male is hardly surprising. Though professors could add the bisexual female poet Sappho (as Adeleke suggests) or the Afro-Greek writer Terence, their options are limited. Few female or minority voices have survived from early Western civilization.

But as we get closer to modern times, it is generally agreed that Western civilization consists of Western Europe and countries with European immigrants, such as the United States – in other words, areas that came to include a diverse array of writers. The second semester of D.S. could include a large number of minority or female writers. In previous years, it hasn’t. Where are Phillis Wheatley, Alexandre Dumas, William Wells Brown and so many others? They were living and writing in Western civilization in a time period covered by D.S. Are their works not influential? Only if you believe that all credit must go to white men you could justify these consistent exclusions.

But just critiquing the white, male construction of Western philosophy is not enough. We need to question why D.S., and D.S. only, exists as a yearlong humanities program in the first place.

D.S. was founded in 1946 to ground its students in the foundational works of history, and, according to its website, it still “serves as a strong foundation for all majors.”

Maybe so. But so could a program reading the great books – sorry, Great Books – of the African canon, or Chinese canon, or Middle Eastern canon or so many others. Western history is not the only history worth learning, and it is not the only one undergirding modernity.

Let’s not forget that D.S. gives its students certain privileges — guaranteed small seminars with prestigious faculty, access to unique colloquia. Why are there no programs so prestigious and advantageous promoting the great works of other cultures? The only answer is the almost fetishistic adoration of a small sample of philosophers and writers who are predominantly white and male.

Especially in our transnational world and multiethnic society, are Confucius and Lao Tzu really less valuable than Plato and Socrates? How about Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali, or Jafar al Sadiq and Al-Khansa? Our community and world are not merely Western, so why give favored status to only Western works?

So long as we have a prestigious, yearlong program celebrating one canon, we should celebrate the others. There is nothing inherently superior about the Western canon, but it gets a privileged place at Yale to the exclusion of other canons. This is worse than unfair; it’s ethnocentric.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at scott. stern@yale.edu.

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